Leiningen Versus The Ants by Carl Stephenson, 1938
The magic trick:
Offering up a crystal-clear lay of the land before the action begins
I love this story. It’s 56 times better than any Hollywood blockbuster. Speaking of, if I might rant for a moment, all these handheld cameras and jump cuts in action movies? It’s the worst. I can’t ever tell what’s going on half the time. I know it’s loud and the camera keeps jumping all over the place, so I figure it’s supposed to be exciting. But if I can’t even tell what’s happening on the screen, how can I really know the stakes? And if I don’t even know the stakes, how am I expected to be excited?
So with that in mind, let’s talk about these ants. Ol’ Leiningen has a problem. His farm is being attacked by millions of flesh-eating ants. Sound like a tough sell on the excitement level? Well, consider this: Stephenson lays out the whole scene, succinctly and clearly, before the action begins. The reader has a complete understanding of the farm, it’s boundaries, the defenses Leiningen has constructed and the ants. It might sound boring, but it’s important. The setup means that the reader can visualize all of the story’s action and evaluate the strategies and scenarios as it goes along. In other words, we’re not suffering from stupid jump cuts and shaky cameras during the action sequences. And that’s quite a trick on Stephenson’s part.
Pell-mell the rabble swarmed down the hill to the plantation, scattered right and left before the barrier of the water-filled ditch, then sped onwards to the river, where, again hindered, they fled along its bank out of sight.
This water-filled ditch was one of the defence measures which Leiningen had long since prepared against the advent of the ants. It encompassed three sides of the plantation like a huge horseshoe. Twelve feet across, but not very deep, when dry it could hardly be described as an obstacle to either man or beast. But the ends of the “horseshoe” ran into the river which formed the northern boundary, and fourth side, of the plantation. And at the end nearer the house and outbuildings in the middle of the plantation, Leiningen had constructed a dam by means of which water from the river could be diverted into the ditch.
So now, by opening the dam, he was able to fling an imposing girdle of water, a huge quadrilateral with the river as its base, completely around the plantation, like the moat encircling a medieval city. Unless the ants were clever enough to build rafts. they had no hope of reaching the plantation, Leiningen concluded.